It’s the last day of my Peace Corps service in my village, Karanggeger. I feel overwhelmed. I’m not sure if I’m properly going about saying goodbye to everyone. I dislike ‘goodbyes’ and would prefer to slip out of the village on my own, unknown to others. But that would be rude in most cultures. I’ve visited my kepala desa (village head) and teachers at school for the last times. We talked about my future plans, returning to America via Europe, starting graduate school in August, and meeting my family as soon as I touch down in the U.S. Some people asked interesting questions – ‘Can I have your shoes?’; ‘What do you think is the best thing about Indonesians after your experience?’; and ‘Will you invite me to your wedding once you find a husband?’

Depending on who was asking, I took the requests for my belongings in stride and gave things away gladly. In all, I’ve given away: dozens of pairs of pants and shirts; my school uniforms; all my batik save one top; six pairs of shoes; a bicycle; a yoga mat; an exercise ball; four towels; three hats; two bags; and countless other sundries. I was surprised with how eagerly and happily people in my village and at my school received these items. To me, they were worn and stretched-out, faded, and unappealing. The the people to whom I gave the items, they were new clothes! New shoes! A new bike! Such gratitude. I have no major issue with tossing things. The more I travel, the easier the adage ‘out with the old, in with the new’ is to approach. In the U.S. I would have had to find a home for things left behind at a shelter or some kind of recycling service. Here, everything I owned, no matter how yellowed from the sun and stretched-out from hand washing it was, is retail worthy! I’m not one to waste and was thrilled that it was so easy to give things away, knowing they would be reused and not thrown in the trash. Coming from a native culture where all material goods are expendable as the next trend sweeps through, living in places like Indonesia remind me of how wasteful Americans are. Everything is reused here because people can’t afford to see reusable goods thrown away. Banners no longer in use? They make rain and sun guards from eating stalls. Old coffee wrappers? They’re woven into handbags. Used water bottles? They become receptacles to sell coconut water.

I think there is a lot I will miss from my life here that I don’t yet fully appreciate. Only when I am back in the crisp clean U.S. will I realize how endeared I was to my grungy, no-rules village. I know I won’t be able to rely on people in the U.S. like I do here. If I ever need anything, from sugar to a watch repairman, all I have to do is ask and what I’m searching for practically appears on my doorstep. People in the U.S. are so busy, I wouldn’t even venture to ask others for help any time of day. Maybe if I let someone know well in advance that I am going to need their help at X:00 on XX date, then I can ask and will receive.

The relaxed atmosphere in Indonesia is also something I will sorely miss as soon as my schedule starts to fill and my personal down time starts to dwindle. Jam Karet, or the Indonesian concept that ‘time is rubber’, infuriates me at times (a bus driver tells you that the bus will leave ‘soon’, you fall asleep for an hour and half on the bus, wake up, and realize the bus still hasn’t moved.), but it sure is nice to know that there’s at least a 30-minute grace period for any event, formal or informal. I’m stress-free here because time is NOT of the essence and time is NOT money in Indonesia. It’s refreshing.

And like most Peace Corps Volunteers who find themselves with plenty of downtime, I get to read all the time. I’ve had the opportunity to embark on the longest, most pleasurable binge of leisurely reading of my life. Two books at a time, finishing a book each week is a fantastic pace for conquering those looming ‘to read’ book lists. I will miss my novels and histories, biographies and essays. That’s not to stay I don’t have time to read in the U.S. but I knock out a mere 10 books per year at most when State-side compared to the dozens of books I’ve downed in Indonesia over the past two years. [A side note on recommended reads from my Peace Corps reading binge. The best works I read while living in my Indonesian village include: The Buru Quartet by Pramoedya Ananta Toer; Love in the Time of Cholera by Marquez; Cutting for Stone by Abraham Vergheese; and Grimus by Salman Rushdie – check them out!]

While there will be many lifestyle changes to mourn once I return to the rich world, there is plenty I am looking forward to in the U.S. I think firstly, I am excited to be unwanted-attention free! As a foreigner in Indonesia, everyone wants a piece of you. I’ve endured 27 months of stares, unwanted questioning, whispers, stalking, and incognito photo taking and I CANNOT WAIT to be on U.S. soil again where no one cares where I’m coming from or where I’m going, what I ate for breakfast or when I will take a husband. The questions in Indonesia can be truly fun cross-cultural exchanges, but 27-months-worth of them has made me exhausted and eager for a breather from being thrown in the ringer around the clock.

And of course food. Food, food, sweet sweet food. And drink. Cheese, nuts, wine, beer, yogurt, olives, and anything with tahini in it. Mexican, Mediterranean, Italian, Indian, French, Moroccan, food is all on my mind and I can’t wait devour the visions of sugar plums that have been dancing in my head since 2012.

I also am looking forward to being a normal 20-something. I love my village but a 6pm involnutary curfew and 0 social life outside of hanging out with the Ibus (women) in the kitchen has made me restless for the hustle and bustle of nightlife. I really enjoy going out, mingling, partying, whatever you want to call it at 25 – I miss it and I want it! That’s not to say that only intriguing things happen when out at bars in the downtowns of America, but there’s always action and entertainment (and in my native tongue to boot!) and I’m craving all of it.

I’ve wrapped up my Peace Corps service on high notes. I don’t feel rushed to say goodbye to everyone but I have an eerie feeling each time I bid adieu to a loved friend here. The eeriness comes from the thought that I may never see them again. For everything that I’ve received from others while in Indonesia, I feel that I’ve given back a mere fraction. I’ve given two farewell speeches at my school – one to students and one to teachers – where I tried my best to express my gratitude and hope that they understand that I meant well and any misunderstandings came from crossed cultural wires. I don’t know if the listeners understood my sentiments, but hopefully if the words didn’t hit them, the tears I shed at the ends of both speeches assured them that I care, I have gained, and I feel love for them.

Peace Corps Indonesia has been quite the ride! I never could have made it without an amazingly supportive Peace Corps Staff, an unfathomably giving host community, and my rock star fellow Peace Corps Volunteers. All good things come to an end. Selalu di hatiku, Indonesia raya 🙂

20140517-IMG_5617

Taking the middle schoolers out for a trip to the beach! Complete with a boat ride

Taking the middle schoolers out for a trip to the beach! Complete with a boat ride

The breathtakingly beautiful volcanic mountains in my region.

The breathtakingly beautiful volcanic mountains in my region.

Sunset over my village.

Sunset over my village.

Giving a short farewell speech at my school.

Giving a short farewell speech at my school.

Indonesian Food (without rice) - tempe, chicken, salad, spicy tomato sauce and cucumbers

Indonesian Food (without rice) – tempe, chicken, salad, spicy tomato sauce and cucumbers

The greatest women I know in the southern hemisphere

The greatest women I know in the southern hemisphere

My village head and me on my last day of Peace Corps service.

My village head and me on my last day of Peace Corps service.

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Graduation day at my Islamic high school happened this Saturday, three days before national exam results will be revealed. National graduation exams were held last month at the beginning of April and the exam results are due for release on May 20th. The graduation ceremony was held before knowing the academic fate of 12th graders so that all students may participate in the ceremony, regardless if they pass. I found the order of events curious (seems a bit eager to celebrate the graduation of students who haven’t actually passed, doesn’t it?) and when I asked my colleagues why it’s done this way I was told that in past years, national exam results revealed that a few students failed and thus don’t actually graduate high school. Students that don’t pass do not attend the ceremony and it affects the atmosphere of what should be a celebratory event.

This year’s graduation was a short and sweet (four hours) ceremony. As teachers, students, and parents arrived, guests were treated to entertainment sponsored by Honda motorcycles. A MC and two Dangdut (Indonesian pop music) singers put on a show while everyone found their seats. I was of course singled out by the MC and brought to the front of the crowd.

“I see someone in the crowd who doesn’t belong to this school,” the MC announced to everyone before dragging me to his stage.

After a small cascade of questions about where I was from, whether my eye color was asli (natural) or whether or not I found Javanese men attractive, the MC proceeded to ask why I wasn’t an Artis or ‘artist’ in Jakarta. This is the term used for singers and actors. I joked along with the MC, trying to give back as many hijinks as I was dealt in the best Indonesian I could muster.

What struck me about this ordeal was how completely comfortable I felt going through the song and dance Q&A in front of hundreds of people with the MC. One or two years ago, I felt annoyed and defiant when singled out as the ‘different person’. I’ve never enjoyed the attention I receive as a foreigner here, but I’ve surely adjusted to it. Despite the MC’s comment that he’d spotted in the crowd someone who ‘doesn’t belong to this school,’ I whole-heartedly feel that, after two years of teaching its students and getting to know its teachers, I do indeed belong to this school.

At the end of the ceremony, I delivered a farewell speech. I surprised myself by choking up at the last paragraph, the part where I thank everyone and tell them that I’ve received more from them than I could ever give. And that sums up my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Indonesia. I’ve received a million more lessons and acts of kindness than I was able to give.
Here are some photos highlighting Graduation:

A fellow English teacher and me after the ceremony. Check out the wall of speakers that made the ceremony audible for miles.

A fellow English teacher and me after the ceremony. Check out the wall of speakers that made the ceremony audible for miles.

Six students received scholarships from a local business for winning academic competitions. The scholarships are for 600,000 Indonesian Rupiah, or around $50

Six students received scholarships from a local business for winning academic competitions. The scholarships are for 600,000 Indonesian Rupiah, or around $50

Crowd 2

The graduates dress up in traditional javanese dress. The girls showed up in kabayas and elaborate head scarves.

The graduates dress up in traditional javanese dress. The girls showed up in kabayas and elaborate head scarves.

The live choir serenades as graduates walk the stage to receive a certificate.

The live choir serenades as graduates walk the stage to receive a certificate.

The school band rocked out some 'Dangdut' or Indonesian pop music.

The school band rocked out some ‘Dangdut’ or Indonesian pop music.

The stage stairs were improvised and a bit hazardous. All the female graduates were helped down by two 'peturun'

The stage stairs were improvised and a bit hazardous. All the female graduates were helped down by two ‘peturun’

All graduates received a school medal and certificate from our school's administrators.

All graduates received a school medal and certificate from our school’s administrators.

The graduates wait in the heat to walk the stage and receive certificates.

The graduates wait in the heat to walk the stage and receive certificates.

A fellow English teacher and me after the ceremony. Check out the wall of speakers that made the ceremony audible for miles.

A fellow English teacher and me after the ceremony. Check out the wall of speakers that made the ceremony audible for miles.

Six students received scholarships from a local business for winning academic competitions. The scholarships are for 600,000 Indonesian Rupiah, or around $50

Six students received scholarships from a local business for winning academic competitions. The scholarships are for 600,000 Indonesian Rupiah, or around $50

Crowd 2

The graduates dress up in traditional javanese dress. The girls showed up in kabayas and elaborate head scarves.

The graduates dress up in traditional javanese dress. The girls showed up in kabayas and elaborate head scarves.

The live choir serenades as graduates walk the stage to receive a certificate.

The live choir serenades as graduates walk the stage to receive a certificate.

The school band rocked out some 'Dangdut' or Indonesian pop music.

The school band rocked out some ‘Dangdut’ or Indonesian pop music.

The stage stairs were improvised and a bit hazardous. All the female graduates were helped down by two 'peturun'

The stage stairs were improvised and a bit hazardous. All the female graduates were helped down by two ‘peturun’

All graduates received a school medal and certificate from our school's administrators.

All graduates received a school medal and certificate from our school’s administrators.

The graduates wait in the heat to walk the stage and receive certificates.

The graduates wait in the heat to walk the stage and receive certificates.

As a part of cross-cultural exchange efforts, I recently taught some of my middle and high schoolers about polite conversation topics in the U.S. We read an English text about questions one may ask a stranger or acquaintance in America. The text explained that some topics are perfectly U.S.-conversation-appropriate including: work; interests or hobbies; sports; and the weather.

As my students read through a short list of conversation-appropriate topics, no one seemed surprised that the above are deemed polite enough to discuss with a stranger in the U.S. Once we moved on to impolite American conversation topics, however, my students’ reactions to the reading became more animated. The reading passage warned against asking certain impolite questions to acquaintances in the U.S., such as:

‘How much money do you make?’;
‘How old are you?’;
‘Where do you live?’;
‘Why don’t you two get married?’ (when spoken to a romantically involved couple);

These ‘don’t ask’ conversation tips from the text also included a warning against attacking another’s ideas or beliefs and insulting someone else for the way they look. While some of these impolite topics made sense to my students (“Yes Miss! Of course don’t attack someone’s ideas!”), there are many questions that Americans find contemptuously rude that Indonesians throw around every day. As we analyzed the differences between polite conversation in America versus polite conversation in Indonesia, students deemed the following questions indicated as impolite to Americans to be normal and polite to Indonesians:

‘How old are you?’;
‘Are you married?’;
‘Do you have children?’;
‘Where do you live?’;
‘What is your religion?’;
‘How many siblings do you have?’.

These questions reflect the details Indonesians are most curious about a stranger and inquiring them is ingrained in the culture. Certainly everything depends on context and I’m sure there are situations in the U.S. when asking an acquaintance about their siblings is not impolite at all. As a foreigner, I am no doubt treated differently from an Indonesian and perhaps receive some extraordinary questions in Java, but I have become perfectly accustomed to answering all of the above questions daily. I discussed with my students how strange it was for me to come to a new country and have people frequently ask me my age and marital status. I explained that where I come from, not only are those questions uncommon, but they are likely to cause offense to the questioned.

I like to think about normal Indonesian questions like, ‘when will you marry?’ and their place in U.S. culture. I am in the last bit of my Peace Corps service and will close the book on PC Indonesia in June this year. While I’m already thinking about getting back to the Land of the Free, beer, and supermarkets, I have also begun to ponder reverse culture shock. Because I have become accustomed to conversation topics deemed impolite in the U.S. (among a million other Indonesian habits and life approaches), I can’t help but smile at the thought of the first time I let slip an inappropriate, ‘how much do you make at your job?’ to an acquaintance (in fact, salary is sacred ground for even close friends and family in the U.S., so I should probably hold my tongue with everyone!). Conversations and behaviors that an American upholds as polite may be the complete opposite of what an Indonesian considers appropriate and for that, culture is an amazing and complex beast. As I pass someone in the street, my, ‘hello, where are you going?’ in Indonesia may be an utterly unfit inquiry on the streets in the U.S. But that’s what makes culture so amazing – it morphs and changes depending on geographies and heritages. No one ever asks me, ‘Hi, how are you?’ in my Indonesian village. That questions doesn’t belong here. But pick me up and plop me in the American Midwest and I’ll find that ‘how are you?’ thrives as a norm.

To conclude the lesson material I taught the day we studied polite conversation, I asked my students to write a couple example sentences of Indonesian polite and impolite questions. I will leave you with some of my favorites from the work they turned in.

Indonesian Polite:

Where do you come from?
What book do you read?
Where do you live?
Where is your mother?
How is your hair long, black, and shiny?
How many children do you have?
Where do you work?
What is your religion?
How old are you?
What does your father do?
Where are you going?
What do you eat?

Indonesian Impolite:

Why are you fat?
Why are you short?
Are you poor?
Are you naughty? (note: naughty is a very common adjective in Indonesian used to describe any kind of misbehavior therefore, ‘naughty’ is one of the most commonly memorized English adjectives)
Why are you lazy?
What is your phone number?
Are you crazy?
Why doesn’t your father work?
Did you bathe? (note: implies that someone smells bad)

Happy International Women’s Day! March is Women’s History Month in the U.S. and March 8th marks a global day to celebrate women. While UN-sanctioned ‘days’ throughout the year may seem abundant (recognizing everything from International Global Health Day to International Day of the World’s Indigenous People), there is a significant reason why dates have been marked on our calendars to commemorate the heroic and marginalized populations on earth. But why designate a day to a marginalized population in the first place? International ‘days’ are established to celebrate progress and re-enliven current work towards creating a better world. What we do from there is up to us – it’s all about how you honor those dates.

The U.S. dedicates the entire month of March as a period of time to reflect on current issues faced by women and to embrace their accomplishments of the past. Last week, the State Department invited ten women from around the world to receive the ‘Women of Courage Award,’ a distinction given to outstanding women from outside the U.S. each year since 2007. While reading through the remarks at this years’ awards, I was moved to share the words of driven successful women from diverse backgrounds with my students of English Club. My goal was to spread the joy of female leadership success, educate about current situations women and girls face globally, and invite students to reflect on why they think women are important to society.

I decided to incorporate a documentary-style film into my students’ lesson too. Girl Rising is a documentary/advocacy campaign resulting from the collaboration of a number of non-profits and NGOs, the most prominent perhaps being CARE. It tells the stories of nine young girls who reflect the statistic that 66 million girls in the world do not go to school. When my students first read this statistic, their first question, validly, was, ‘why?’ The reasons why girls around the world are kept from going to school are many. In most cases, it boils down to the fact that boys are more highly valued than girls.

In one of the film’s stories, an Afghani girl is married at age 14. Her dowry is then used to buy her older brother a new car. My students’ reactions to hearing this were of outrage – ‘a body for a car?’ one student demanded. But it’s the truth. Marrying a daughter is a great way for the poorest of poor to gain capital or pay a debt. And despite my student’s shock about the Afghani girl’s story, that reality isn’t too far from home here in Indonesia. Just last month one of my best eleventh-graders dropped out of school. At 16, she will be married to a local farmhand to help her family pay a debt. She loved school and mourns the loss of her future.

The argument for investing in girls is simple: keep them in school and they will avert illness and poverty and pass on prosperity and education to their children. Eloquently depicted in the Girl Effect video (no matter how many times I’ve shown this clip to students and friends, it still makes me tear up) that you can watch here:

The Girl Effect Video

The discussion with my students during our International Women’s Day celebration also addressed how lucky we are to go to school. I come from a country where education is free through high school and my female English Club students are among the fortunate girls who are not denied an education in Indonesia. My students also analyzed two speech excerpts that address the importance of women’s empowerment, one given by Hilary Clinton and the other by Dr. Nasrin Oryakhil, recipient of a 2014 Women of Courage Award.

The speech excerpts are at the end of this post.

If you don’t celebrate International Women’s Day in any other way, simply take a moment to reflect on all the women and girls in your life (including yourself). Imagine what life would look like without the freedoms and opportunities we expect each day. With 66 million girls out of school worldwide, what a gift education is for those who receive it! From my village to yours, Happy International Women’s Day.

English Club Students quoting Hilary Clinton:
Women's Day-3
Women's Day-2
Women's Day

English Club Students quoting Dr. Nasrin Oryakhil
Women's Day-4
Women's Day-5

“If women are healthy and educated, their families will flourish. If women are free from violence, their families will flourish. If women have a chance to work and earn as full and equal partners in society, their families will flourish. And when families flourish, communities and nations will flourish.”

-Hilary Clinton, 1995, UN 4th World Conference on Women, Beijing

“It is vital to come to this realization that women are half of the population and marginalizing a girl or woman in any form means disintegrating the sacred institution of family or our society. Empowering a woman means empowering a society and generation.”

-Nasrin Oryakhil, 2014, Women of Courage Awards Ceremony, Washington DC

Indonesian Girls Leading Our World is a girls’ leadership initiative rooted in Peace Corps’ over-a-decade-old Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World). I ran a camp like this last year with four other Peace Corps Volunteers and decided that during my last year in Indonesia, I wanted to bring this event to my regency, Probolinggo, and put the planning in the hands of my Indonesian counterparts. Since May 2013, my close colleague and I began planning the camp. About two months out we secured 100% sponsorship from East Java’s largest electricity plant, contributing hugely to the sustainability of IGLOW Probolinggo.

To kill the suspense, the camp was a huge success! We invited nine schools from my kabupaten (regency) to send female high schoolers to participate in a four-day, three-night leadership building camp. At the camp, girls studied women’s health, teamwork, critical thinking, and goal setting. The highlight for me was the fantastic leadership of our planning committee – three fabulously hardworking women I work with at my school and me. IGLOW went from being my project as a Peace Corps Volunteer to our project for the community. It was a thrill to experience project development where my counterparts were independently programming, prepping, and executing the project. After pulling off this years’ camp, I have every confidence that my counterparts can recreate IGLOW to offer more young promising leaders the chance to enhance their leadership skills and women’s health knowledge.

Here are some highlights from Camp IGLOW Probolinggo 2014:

Camp Counselors play a getting-to-know-you Ice Breaker at our Training of Trainers before the camp.

Camp Counselors play a getting-to-know-you Ice Breaker at our Training of Trainers before the camp.

Two Camp Counselors participate in Icebreakers at our Training of Trainers day before the camp.

Two Camp Counselors participate in Icebreakers at our Training of Trainers day before the camp.

The Human Knot! One of my favorite team building Icebreakers, here we untangled ourselves at our camp counselor Training of Trainers day before the camp.

The Human Knot! One of my favorite team building Icebreakers, here we untangled ourselves at our camp counselor Training of Trainers day before the camp.

'Ayu' writes her name at IGLOW check-in. Each camper received a handbook, name tag, and colored bracelet at check-in.

‘Ayu’ writes her name at IGLOW check-in. Each camper received a handbook, name tag, and colored bracelet at check-in.

Two of my fearless committee members who helped a lot with camp programming and planning.

Two of my fearless committee members who helped a lot with camp programming and planning.

Nuri, our MC, and I show the girls 'Camper Rules' on our first night together.

Nuri, our MC, and I show the girls ‘Camper Rules’ on our first night together.

Powered by colored beads! The committee is all hands in for IGLOW.

Powered by colored beads! The committee is all hands in for IGLOW.

Campers show off their creativity in small group cheer performances.

Campers show off their creativity in small group cheer performances.

A local nutritionist visited camp to teach to sessions on nutrition health.

A local nutritionist visited camp to teach to sessions on nutrition health.

One of our facilitators and a camper take on a team building session challenge.

One of our facilitators and a camper take on a team building session challenge.

The obstacle course campers navigated during a team building session challenge.

The obstacle course campers navigated during a team building session challenge.

One of our facilitators teaches a session on Sex and Gender roles.

One of our facilitators teaches a session on Sex and Gender roles.

Campers participate in allocating gender roles to the sexes. They discussed the difference between sex and gender and how society assigns gender roles to people based on their sex.

Campers participate in allocating gender roles to the sexes. They discussed the difference between sex and gender and how society assigns gender roles to people based on their sex.

A little Yoga to keep everyone relaxed led by yours truly

A little Yoga to keep everyone relaxed led by yours truly

Our reproductive health specialist Sartika from Samsara, a NGO based out of Jogjakarta, Indonesia

Our reproductive health specialist Sartika from Samsara, a NGO based out of Jogjakarta, Indonesia

Campers learning about reproductive organs. Exciting stuff!

Campers learning about reproductive organs. Exciting stuff!

Campers participate in a 'Fact' or 'Myth' activity about women's health.

Campers participate in a ‘Fact’ or ‘Myth’ activity about women’s health.

One of our counselors helps facilitate a session on personal values. Her sign reads 'Self Respect'

One of our counselors helps facilitate a session on personal values. Her sign reads ‘Self Respect’

Camp groups participate in a 'personal values auction' activity.

Camp groups participate in a ‘personal values auction’ activity.

Ningsih, a committee member, facilitates a session on how our perception of female beauty is skewed by what we see in the media.

Ningsih, a committee member, facilitates a session on how our perception of female beauty is skewed by what we see in the media.

Campers support each other in a team building challenge to reach their goal - the finish line!

Campers support each other in a team building challenge to reach their goal – the finish line!

Campers present what they learned during a physical/verbal/sexual violence session.

Campers present what they learned during a physical/verbal/sexual violence session.

Campers lift spirits with their small group cheers.

Campers lift spirits with their small group cheers.

School groups meet to discuss how they will bring their experiences at IGLOW back to their communities - 'Sharing the GLOW'

School groups meet to discuss how they will bring their experiences at IGLOW back to their communities – ‘Sharing the GLOW’

IGLOW alumni perform 'the cup song' at our Saturday night talent show.

IGLOW alumni perform ‘the cup song’ at our Saturday night talent show.

The camp bridge model - what campers learned during IGLOW that will help them overcome challenges and achieve their goals. The bridge includes things like "honesty," "hard work," and "self confidence."

The camp bridge model – what campers learned during IGLOW that will help them overcome challenges and achieve their goals. The bridge includes things like “honesty,” “hard work,” and “self confidence.”

Gunardi, a human trafficking specialist from the Surabaya NGO ECPAT, prompts campers to dramatize human trafficking scenarios.

Gunardi, a human trafficking specialist from the Surabaya NGO ECPAT, prompts campers to dramatize human trafficking scenarios.

Peace Crops represented at IGLOW Probolinggo! Our Country Director and regional manager and Marjie, my rock star fellow Probolinggo PCV.

Peace Crops represented at IGLOW Probolinggo! Our Country Director and regional manager and Marjie, my rock star fellow Probolinggo PCV.

Team Green! This color group won a points competition during the camp and got to take home a cool prize basket.

Team Green! This color group won a points competition during the camp and got to take home a cool prize basket.

Participants from nearby Gending get a picture with the Peace Corps Volunteers on the last day of camp.

Participants from nearby Gending get a picture with the Peace Corps Volunteers on the last day of camp.

The committee! Four-strong leading IGLOW Probolinggo to be a huge success. Thank you Nuri, Ningsih, and Deny!

The committee! Four-strong leading IGLOW Probolinggo to be a huge success. Thank you Nuri, Ningsih, and Deny!

My school where the camp was held. Rainy season and a little flooding didn't stop the GLOW.

My school where the camp was held. Rainy season and a little flooding didn’t stop the GLOW.

While I spent most of 2012 and will spend over half of 2014 in Indonesia, my entire calendar year of 2013 was spent working as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Here are some glimpses of the year. A picture from each month of 2013 (December gets three):

January
My former host father and our family friends swim in the Madurese Straight, taking a tumble from the rubber tire. Yes, that is a small child falling into the water but don’t worry, she was fine.
January

February
My friend and I serve as judges for a 10th grade English speech contest. This young lady took home top honors.
February

March
Campers at IGLOW (Indonesian Girls Leading Our World) share what they’ve learned about gender and reproductive health.
March

April
One of my middle schoolers enjoys a Sunday off on the shore of our village beach.
April

May
Another one of my middle schoolers, we sip on sugar cane juice during a long bike ride around the village.
May

June
I welcome my parents to Indonesia for a week and then get to travel with them to Thailand. Here we are at the borders of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos.
June

July
I bid my parents adieu and meet two fellow Peace Corps Volunteers for a trek through southeast Asia during the school semester break. We visit fantastic spots like this temple in Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
July

August
My neighbor and friend gets engaged and I attend a party to celebrate. This is her with her future mother-in-law.
August

September
The first year of the Bromo Marathon is a smashing hit. I run the half marathon up and around the volcano pictured in the painting.
September

October
Two midwife apprentices and I stroll to the beach one morning before the sun heats up.
trip

November
Peace Corps Volunteers unite to cook a turkey and celebrate Thanksgiving thousands of miles away from home. Matt and Richie.
November

December
I visit Mount Ijen, an active volcano with abundant sulfur emissions. These men make two trips per day to carry up to 90 kilos of sulfur from the volcano’s crater to sell.
December - Ijen

I welcome my best friend to Indonesia. We travel to Borneo for a few days on the river in an orangutan forest.
December - boat
December - orangutan

A small prayer mosque in the mountains with Arabic script

A small prayer mosque in the mountains with Arabic script

I read today this article from The American Scholar on the decline of Evangelical Christianity in the States. The article is worth the read but if you don’t click the link, it highlights Robert Schuller’s bankrupt Crystal Cathedral, a gargantuan worshiping space in Orange County, CA that resembles an oversized greenhouse with 10,000 panes of glass comprising its ceiling. The mega church in the U.S. is something I’ve never understood. From my point of view, it seems distasteful and mercenary to invite thousands of people into one space and wow them with theatrics and life advice. The article goes on to analyze the new age Evangelical Christianity in America that’s reverting to a more personal worship without hell and brimstone literal Bible preachings. That’s well and good but as I read this article, I started to reflect on religion and its role in Indonesia.

Religion is an all important identifier in Indonesia. Everyone must claim a religion. Everyone. Even nonbelievers cannot register as such on any form of identification. Right down to a mundane bank account application, there is a space to fill in your religious affiliation. Indonesia claims religious freedom so long as one’s religion falls among the five nationally recognized: Islam, Protestant Christianity, Catholic Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.

As an archipeligo, Indonesia’s span of islands make it a diverse nation with plenty of cultural and religious variances. I tend to loose sight of just how diverse all of Indonesia is because of where I live in East Java. The island of Java houses 60 percent of Indonesia’s people, making it the most populous island in the world. The majority of people living in Java are Muslim. In my village alone the religious demographic is 99 percent Muslim and 1 percent Christian. Outside of Java, however, lie places like Hindi Bali, Christian Manado, and utterly mixed Papua. Islam in Java is relatively new. Arriving around the 16th Century, Islam has taken on a unique form in Indonesia as it fuses its elements with Javanese culture. For any cultural ceremony I attend, weddings, funerals, birth, etc., I become confused about the intricacies of the ceremony. Is that incense being lit as a Muslim practice, or a Javanese one? Is the cadence being recited translated from the Qur’an or is it purely Javanese? The blurred boundaries of Islam and Javanese culture are one of the most fascinating features about living here. I have lived in other Muslim majority nations in the Arab World and the practice of Islam manifested itself in a, slightly in some cases or largely in others, different way. In Java, Islam has fallen amongst the cracks of Javanese and thus Hindu culture.

Scattered throughout East Java are Hindu temples from before Islam spread to the island. Some are well kept and some are left to rot. People living nearby these temples know exactly where they’re located but as Muslims, the crumbling rock may just be an emblem of a forgotten Hindu past. Some of the temples are still visited by Hindus in neighboring Bali. The temples are a stark reminder of the recent conversion to Islam and give evidence to the mixture of Javanese/Hindu beliefs with Islamic doctrine.

With everyone in my village practicing Islam, I am surrounded by mosques. In the large town to the east of me, however, there is a Christian population and two churches. Last Spring, I was curious to meet Javanese Christians and got directions to the Catholic church. I was raised Catholic and am well aware of the universality of a Catholic service, something on which I was hoping to rely when attending a service – Catholic service should maintain the same structure in any country. I rode my bike 20 kilometers to the church. Arriving 30 minutes late, I took a seat in the back. I was immediately confused by the flow of the service. My pew-mate picked up on my newness and slipped me a prayer and psalm book. Both were in Indonesian. It wasn’t until the end of the service that I was seriously questioning the Catholic-ness of the establishment I’d entered. And it turns out that I had not taken a seat in the town’s Catholic church, but it’s Protestant one. After the service, the people were friendly and I was invited to breakfast in someone’s home. We chatted about what I was doing there and I confided my mistake.

‘Oh the Catholic Church,’ they gasped, ‘yes, you were wrong. That church is another kilometer from here.’

I did end up going to the Catholic church some months later. The service held true to what I expected and I again was embraced by the church-going community, including more post-service breakfast.

I’ll be honest. I expected from both of these church attendances to meet new groups of people that were fundamentally different from the Muslim Indonesians I spend most of my time with. But the Christians I visited with maintained similar cultural interests and behavior I experience with everyone else. It’s evidence that Javanese culture overrides being [insert religion here]. I learned that I could not attribute certain behavior to any religion – everyone here is first and foremost Javanese. It’s also evidence that people are people everywhere. Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, green, purple, whatever. We’re all variations of the same.

Now back to the ridiculous-sounding Crystal Cathedral mega church in Orange County. While I do get annoyed some evenings and early mornings by the nonstop prayers coming from the mosques in my village, the Muslim-Javanese proclamations of faith via minaret loudspeaker is no different than some in-your-face 10,000 pane-glassed God house in California. Like all organized religious, modern Muslims too have built their share of gaudy architectural tributes to the divine (see Casablanca’s Hassan II Mosque).
If nothing else, these holy architectural feats are a reflection of how revered religion can be for the world’s believers. Where I live in Java, Islam unites my friends and neighbors. While a great community-builder, religion doesn’t have to divide us either. As an ‘outsider’ I find myself being accepted into open arms even when I reply, ‘Christian’ to the all important question, ‘Beragama apa?‘ or ‘what’s your religion?’ When I tell people that I’m Christian I have only ever received a huge smile as a reply.

‘Oh yes, Christian,’ people will tell me, ‘that’s fine, we are all one people.’

Would someone from an Evangelical mega church in the U.S. have the same accepting reaction when meeting a proclaimed Muslim? I sure hope so.